Don’t Get Me Wrong
Don’t get me wrong — Howl’s Moving Castle is no way shape or form, bad. Objectively speaking, this film is one of the best Japanese animation has to offer. Subjectively speaking, it tastes like a bowl of mac and cheese. The level of comfort varies across different genres. You obviously wouldn’t watch Evil Dead to feel good. It is raining outside and you’ve turned on the heater, all while enjoying a deliciously happy movie. We hold these memories close to our chest during the darkest moments and also the most banal ones. Paradise is referred to only three times in the New Testament writings; Miyazaki challenges this notion.
If anything is certain, it’s that Hayao Miyazaki is the standard to match when it comes to Japanese animation. He is sort of the go-to guy for Studio Ghibli, the Kirk to their Spock, the Butch to Cassidy, or quite simply put, a godfather of cinema. For those who are not as involved in anime, the Japanese filmmaker may come as a stranger, but the fact of the matter is, his works have gone on to influence and echo throughout animated films thereafter. Calling him an artist feels like downplaying him, since after all, his films evoke etherealness in the form of cartoons. And because of his unique ability to recurrently make fantasy feel that bit more credulous, the fantastical begins to dull slightly. Even geniuses struggle to imagine creative solutions everyday, something Howl’s Moving Castle, or any Miyazaki film inevitably has to show.
Founding itself on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, the preconceived characters are brought to life by the filmmaker himself. Much praise should go to him for the pedigree injected into both a simple and complex storyline. This is his arena, and he shows off his creative panache in world-building and ultimately, beauty. Whatever goes on through his mind, us mere mortals will struggle to match, but of course, that is why we are paying to see his works. All of its plot elements are interwoven so subtly, yet play out so nicely together at the end. However, this rubric that Miyazaki follows constantly throughout all his films makes Howl’s Moving Castle a victim of his own success.
Like a page out of Cinderella’s, the main character is another young girl in a long line of female protagonists straight out of Miyazaki’s book. This time, he’s added an obviously European touch to his environs, starring Sophie as its starry-eyed impetus. Compared to everyone else, most notably her siblings and mother, she pales ever slightly in her dull outfits. Is it done on purpose? Sophie seems pretty boring to be honest. In every classic tale of romance nowadays, there is a playboy who stumbles upon an innocent girl. Think Casanova or maybe Fifty Shades of Grey. Howl is the talk of the town. He is charismatic, handsome, and magical (literally). Women pile on top of each other for an opportunity with Howl, all except for Sophie, since she doubts anyone would ever care to give her the time of day. She is very bland-looking after all.
Her first contact with Howl comes as a rather unexpected one. Whilst in an alleyway, Sophie is harassed by some hooligan soldiers, to which Howl heroically swoops in and settles for good. She is taken out of the alleyway and this would presumably be the end of her adventures with Howl. It is, until an old hag barges into Sophie’s shop well after its closing hours. The Witch of the Waste, like all the other women, has a crush on Howl and his mini rendezvous with Sophie irks the witch. Out of bitterness, the witch transforms Sophie into an older version of herself, therefore explaining the white hair we see in the film posters.
From here on, the story is set to launch itself towards a more exciting episode. Absolutely appalled by the witch’s cruel act, Sophie sets out to find a cure, which eventually leads her to the doorsteps of Howl’s castle, the big ugly machine boasted on once again, the film poster. This monstrosity is the home of Howl, fuelled by Calcifer, a fire spirit. The film progresses, as more and more characters are added to this troupe, all while two kingdoms are warring in the background. Amidst the gunfire and heavy artillery, Sophie continues to search for her cure, and slowly begins to succumb to all things Howl-related.
Before any criticism can go to Howl’s Moving Castle, we have to commend its beauty for the umpteenth time. It remains till this day, a wonder of animation, capable of putting any Pixar film to shame, much less the era it was released in. Panoramic sights scatter around without fail, Miyazaki creates palettes that will indubitably light us up, going on to inspire future animators. Every era of film has had some noticeable architects; he is part of this renaissance.
Dr. Seuss so passionately says “oh the places you’ll go!”. The castle, just like the film’ title, moves. Not often do we find inanimate objects moving, but this giant amusement park features a lot more activity than other Miyazaki films. Long after the credits roll, we can still recall the characters fondly. This is because they are for lack of better words, unique. Calcifer is similar to Genie from Aladdin in many ways, comical and loyal, impish yet possessing a warm demeanour. Howl mixes charm and enigma, displaying strength and vulnerability at the same time. His childish instances make him darling for all viewers.
Ultimately, when compared to other Miyazaki films, Howl’s Moving Castle carries a very “déjà vu” feel to it. True, the aforementioned rubric has brought great success, although the characters do start to feel repeated. It’s totally alright to recycle material, a trait all directors unfailingly do, but for someone of Miyazaki’s caliber, this repetition comes off a bit strange. This is not the first time we see a young girl going off on some kind of mystical adventure. What’s his obsession with little girls?
Moreover, the plot at the end does not seem… correct. We enter into dream logic which fails to make any literal sense, transforming into wave after wave of confusing thoughts. Is the curse lifted? Why does Sophie go back and forth between 20 and 90? What is the point of the ongoing war? Is it all part of the ongoing magic?
Put aside my impromptu bashing, Howl’s Moving Castle remains entertaining, and without a doubt, good. The negative points come only after repeated viewings, when we have calmed down from the trance. Children will love it, whereas adults will creak open a smile. The best part about Miyazaki resides in his naturalism and the glorious sense that he proposes in place of normality. As for storytelling, few can come close to him, the classic themes of true love, pacifism, even destiny, being the cornerstones of his films. Whether he stays in retirement or not, the Japanese director can consider this one of his strongest pieces, just barring the rubric flaw.